Why LA’s Pacific Islander community is especially susceptible to COVID-19

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Coronavirus has taken a steep toll on communities of color, especially Pacific Islanders in LA County. Photo by Pixabay.

COVID-19 has taken an especially steep toll on communities of color. In LA County, the vast majority of cases and deaths are among Latinos. However, the highest rate of infection among any racial or ethnic group is taking place among LA’s Pacific Islander community. They’re three times more likely than Latinos to come down with the virus, with about 2500 per 100,000 taking ill. That’s all according to LA County’s COVID-19 dashboard.

To learn why this cohort is so susceptible to coronavirus and why those numbers are so high, KCRW talks with Dr. Raynald Samoa, endocrinologist at City of Hope and a member of the National Council of Asian Pacific Islander Physicians. 

KCRW: According to LA County data, Angelenos who are Pacific Islanders are six times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white people; infection rates are five times higher for Pacific Islanders than Black residents. Is this infection rate linked to the same factors contributing to higher rates among other ethnic groups? 

Dr. Raynald Samoa: “Yes, a lot of the factors are very similar to other communities of color. The high percentage of essential workers … large percentage that live in multi-generational homes, longstanding lack of access to medical services due to longstanding social and economic inequities. All of these have contributed to their predisposition.”

Are there specific traditions or practices that are common among Pacific Islanders that could be leading to increased transmission of the virus? 

“Yes, so I think some of the things that are somewhat unique in Pacific Islander communities is there is a tendency to gather in large groups in regards to celebrations. A majority of Pacific Islanders are affiliated with a religious institution. So we are talking about a very high percentage of community members that subscribe to a certain faith and will gather when possible. 

… Now there's a stigma of shame that comes with COVID-19. And so, shame and mistrust. Those are two things that help this virus spread. 

But one thing that is in particular to this community … especially in the   Polynesian Pacific Islanders is … how they think of illness as a result of some type of transgression within a relationship, either with one's family, one's faith, one's community. And so oftentimes when illness comes about, there’s a thought of someone not being mindful of those relationships.”

Within the Pacific Islander community, are leaders talking about preventative measures, contact tracing, or what to do when you’re sick? 

The National Pacific Islander COVID-19 Response Team is actually just a national organization that helps provide technical assistance to regional efforts. There’s a regional task force in Southern California, and they're working hard with their public health departments to increase the cultural capacity or the competency of these contact tracers. 

There's also … podcasts using Pacific Islander health professionals as well as faith-based leaders to push this messaging out.”

Recent reports say Filipino Americans are also dying from COVID-19 at elevated rates. The Philippine Consulate General of LA says that out of 48 Filipino Americans infected with COVID in SoCal, 19 died. Are there overlapping factors contributing to the mortality rates? 

“Absolutely, there's [sic] a lot of parallel socioeconomic factors between the two communities. And one of the things that Filipinos are struggling with is that their data is aggregated. So Asian data is generally reported as one big number. But subgroups in there that may be experiencing significant disparities, such as the Filipino community, are being hidden. 

And so what would look like a community that's not affected actually has subgroups that are … at really high risk. …  They have a high percentage of essential workers that work in the medical field, in nursing homes. And until that data comes about, resources don't get dedicated to this high risk group.” 

LA County health officials are aware of the increased risk among Pacific Islanders. Is there outreach targeting Native Hawaiians or other people from Oceania in LA?

“There’s more focused testing … efforts to help these families find resources such as paying for utility bills, finding resources to help with housing security, food security, and these efforts are continuous.”



Matt Guilhem


Darrell Satzman, Amy Ta